Four Years Later: What Happens After College Graduation?

By Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

This morning I woke up to a New York Times article about an unemployed graduate of a for-profit institution. We’ve read many of these types of articles. Although they are mostly anecdotal, the sheer number of these articles, along with our unemployment data, assign more credibility to these writings. We know that people are hurting, and not just those who did not go to college, but also to those who did. The story in question documents an adult student, Joe DeGrella, a former contractor who decided to attend a for-profit institution in Kentucky to retrain for cardiology technology. Two years later, the 57-year old DeGrella is jobless and $20,000 in debt. As the New York Times states, their extensive analysis found that “many graduates wind up significantly worse off than when they started—mired in unemployment and debt from training for positions that do not exist, and end up working elsewhere for minimum wage.”

So I thought I would look at the recent release from the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) 2007-08 Baccalaureate and Beyond (B&B) Report. This report, released in July, doesn’t focus on the type of institution that DeGrella attended, but I thought it of interest to see what happened to graduates from four-year institutions. The B&B report looks at graduates four years after graduation. Here are some of the interesting findings:

  • 69 percent of graduates were employed, 11 percent were employed and still enrolled, and 6 percent were going to school and not working. Of the remaining 15 percent, 7 percent were unemployed and the other 8 percent were considered out of the labor force.
  • Of those who were employed and not going to school (69 percent), 85 percent had a full-time job; 8 percent had a part-time job, and 8 percent had multiple jobs.
  • Graduates had an average of 2.1 jobs in the four years since graduation. Thirty-nine percent had only one job, 34 percent two, and 16 percent three jobs. Eleven percent had four or more jobs in that time period.
  • The median income for full-time employees was $46,000 in 2012 dollars. However, not surprising but nonetheless disconcerting, men earned 20 percent the median earnings than women ($51,100 vs. $42,500).
  • STEM majors earned considerably more than non-STEM majors: $60,000 vs. $44,000; and education graduates earned the least of all ($37,000).

These are the best data we have. It is collected about once every four years by the US Department of Education. Other studies, such as the Current Population Survey (CPS) by the US Census Bureau, have monthly and annual data, but the data are somewhat lacking due to self-reporting.

Which brings me to my point. Gainful employment.

The federal government is requiring vocational institutions to provide evidence of employment for their graduates. The discussion is well covered in the education press and I won’t digress here. Much of the focus on gainful employment is on for-profit education organizations that have traditionally high tuition, low-graduation rates, leaving students with large debts. This isn’t true for all for-profits, but it certainly describes many of them.

Unfortunately, the truth also holds for public and private, not-for-profit institutions. Many students attend these institutions, some graduate, many do not, and many have high debt ratios and mediocre jobs. As this B&B study shows, 70 percent of public four-year students were employed four-years after graduation. Of that group, 85 percent held a full-time job. Doing the math, that means that only 60 percent of graduating students at a four-year, public institution were fully-employed four years after graduation, leaving 40 percent who were either part-time employed, still in school, unemployed, or deemed “out of the workforce.”

Forty percent. That seems to be a large percentage that many years out.

Three-quarters of four-year students received some type of student aid and 61 percent took out a student loan averaging about $7,300 per year[1]. Over four years, that’s around $30,000.

Forty percent of graduates aren’t working full-time, four years after graduation, with an average of $30,000 in debt. Plus expenses.

So, back to Joe DeGrella, the 57-year old recent student, who completed a program and ended up with $20,000 in loans and no job. When do we start to look at the subsidized education we offer for students and make the connection with employment opportunities in the workforce? We keep selling young and older students that education is the answer. I believe it, but I believe it less sometimes after reviewing the trials and tribulations of those who have leveraged life savings and retirement funds to send their loved ones or themselves to school. The excitement of graduating exercises in early May become the reality of finding a waitressing job in August. And the data from NCES doesn’t suggest it gets much better for a large percentage of graduates.

We’ve hit a point where we need to look at this critically and decide how we want to educate our high school graduates, our young workers, and our adult workforce, employed and not employed. It does not serve any one well to say “go to school,” when we can’t guarantee decent employment, or are educating them in areas that have no jobs and won’t have any jobs in the near or distant future.

Perhaps it is time for job and education panels. Perhaps the decisions that are made about education and training need to be made very differently than how they are. The evidence suggests that the time is ripe for change. Simply put, too many people are hurting. And we are all complicit.


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